Bon appétit, Dalat: Life in the Vietnamese highlands

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 12 minutes 

For all its hills, gardens, and cool highland air, Dalat doesn’t have a lot to offer during daylight hours. It’s at night that the city really comes alive.

From around five p.m., the city’s centre begins to shake itself awake. Barbeques, restaurants, florists, dancers, sock-sellers - all would congregate into one bustling thrum, spilling into the streets around the main business district. The otherwise soulless and grimy marketplace of Cho Dalat would fire up with lights, noise, motorbikes (yes, really), and the distinctive pong of fish sauce.

And I, in my humble concrete shack, would close the lid of my laptop, put away my bad Vietnamese red wine, slip on my worn-out Tevas, and head off to find dinner.

 

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 12 minutes 

For all its hills, gardens, and cool highland air, Dalat doesn’t have a lot to offer during daylight hours. It’s at night that the city really comes alive.

From around five p.m., the city’s centre begins to shake itself awake. Barbeques, restaurants, florists, dancers, sock-sellers – all would congregate into one bustling thrum, spilling into the streets around the main business district. The otherwise soulless and grimy marketplace of Cho Dalat would fire up with lights, noise, motorbikes (yes, really), and the distinctive pong of fish sauce.

And I, in my humble concrete shack, would close the lid of my laptop, put away my bad Vietnamese red wine, slip on my worn-out Tevas, and head off to find dinner.

phở gà with herbs to garnish

In all the seven months I lived in Vietnam, I never once prepared a meal in my apartment. It wasn’t for lack of cooking facilities: rudimentary as they were, I had a gas cooker, fridge, and various pots and pans. They were dusty. Why stay in and cook when a fresh bowl of phở gà cost only a few dollars?

If you’ve lived all your life in Ho Chi Minh, then this highland city certainly seems like a breath of fresh air. If you’ve lived all your life in New Zealand, well, you might feel differently.

Dalat is an odd little city. Perched among the central highlands of southern Vietnam, it’s a hodgepodge of hills, buildings, tea plantations, and… motorbikes. The city surrounds Xuân Hương Lake, which looks quite beautiful at night, somewhat slimy during the day. It’s the largest city in the central highlands but small by Vietnamese standards: the population in 2020 was 425,000. Weekends and public holidays see this population swell three, four times – mostly with domestic tourists.

But Dalat has its charms and, for the time I lived there, I loved it.

Early 2017, I was on a vague traipse around the world that began with a stint in India. India didn’t work out (that’s another story), but I wasn’t yet ready to go back home. I did, however, have a friend in Vietnam. So, flights were booked, and I departed Chennai for Ho Chi Minh.

Ho Chi Minh, though, proved not my kind of place. It’s an amazing, thrilling metropolis, especially enjoyed by Westerners for the beer, the banh mi sandwich, and the budget lifestyle.

Dalat, just a six-hour bus journey away, was smaller and cooler. It was perfect.

So too thought the French. In the 1800s, when Vietnam was part of the French colony Indochina, Dalat was little more than a mountainous valley inhabited by a few hill tribes. It may well have remained so if it weren’t for the intrepid scientist Alexandre Yersin. Yersin – later famed for identifying the bacillus that caused the bubonic plague – hiked into Dalat’s plains in 1893. Enamoured by Dalat’s temperate climate, high altitude, and lush countryside, he urged the French colonialists to turn the area into a holiday destination for French officers: a kind of R&R from Saigon’s oppressive humidity.

The name Dalat is speculated to be a loose translation for “the water source of the Lat people”. Other accounts claim it’s an acronym for the Latin phrase, “dat aliis laetitiam aliis temperiem”: “offering happiness for some, a comfortable climate for others.” Whatever the case, the French were equally charmed with the hilly plateau, and went on to build a very French-style city complete with colonial villas and narrow streets. The most elaborate construction was a luxury palace, which charged an equivalent of $USD200 a night and hosted kings, maharajahs, princes, politicians, and artists, including the playwright Noel Coward and novelist Somerset Maugham.

Today, Dalat still models itself as Le Petit Paris of Vietnam, and much of the old French architecture remains. There’s even a mini Eiffel Tower.

Besides its European quirks, modern Dalat has more than a few claims to fame. It’s still cooler than almost any other city in Vietnam: around 14-23 °C year-round. The golf course is highly coveted by Korean tourists, and the Dalat Flower Garden – a 7-hectare park abundant in roses, lilies, and chrysanthemums – is enormously popular with domestic wedding parties. On the outskirts of the city are several waterfalls, coffee farms, pagodas, and mountains.

I never went to any of these. I was there to observe, to work, and, well, to eat.

My first lodgings were a modest hotel run by a couple with a toddler. The family would dine, nightly, in front of the reception desk, often with the karaoke player (every Vietnamese family has a karaoke player). I was invited to join more than once; I declined.

Later, I moved to a crude tin-roof flat that cost the grand sum of $NZ170 a month. It had a kitchen, a bed, a window, and a tiny bathroom. The night I arrived, the toilet blocked. Not unheard of in Vietnam, but also not very pleasant. I stood back and cringed as my landlady – all 40-ish kg of her – stoically carried out her plumbing duties with a wooden broom. That was the first time I’d met her properly and, much to her credit, she never brought it up again.

Dalat has a small expat population, but I knew few of them. Nor did I speak Vietnamese – but I did learn enough to buy food, count, and offer appreciation (“This is delicious! Thank you!”).

Ah, the food.

Each morning I would take my shopping bag and head out to the market. Like the night market, the morning version was a noisy, pungent hub of vendors and their produce: fruit, vegetables, potted plants, coffee, fresh flowers, spices, raw fish… all strewn within and above and amongst one another.

My breakfast consisted of a bánh mì ốp la: a plain white baguette stuffed with a fried egg, pickled radish, and soy sauce. Pop-up bánh mì stalls were dotted around the city every morning, usually run by women, and each freshly-made offering cost around 20,000 dong, or $NZ1.20.

Vietnam prides itself on its coffee, and Dalat has more coffee vendors and cafes than most towns have people. And they were always busy. At any hour of any day, even the most basic establishment would be patronised by locals sipping their black brew.

Traditionally, Vietnamese coffee is made using a metal drip filter: hot water is poured through a coarse dark roast, allowing the coffee to drip slowly into a cup. This result is poured into a glass full of ice and sometimes sweetened condensed milk is added.

Iced coffee to go

My cà phê đá (black coffee) would be served mang đi (to go) in a plastic cup with a scoop of ice and a straw. And another plastic bag, for good measure. Strong, cold, and as black as tar, this is one beverage that must be taken slowly.

My daily round of the market was as much for the sights as it was for the supplies. The fruit!

New Zealand may have the kiwifruit and the apple, but the diversity of fruit in southeast Asia is formidable. Mango, pineapple, lychee, rambutan, dragon fruit, guava, jackfruit, pomelo, strawberries: all of it fresh, all of it mere cents for a kilo. I was usually charged more than the local price, but to complain was futile.

My favourite was sa pô – the sapodilla. These egg-shaped, brown-skinned fruits are underwhelming to look at, but their juicy flesh is something else: a rich kind of caramel-maltiness, sweet and dangerously moreish.

Lunch and dinner were another gastronomic adventure. Dalat has innumerable offerings for the Western palate, including a Lotteria (the southeast Asia equivalent of McDonald’s) and a variety of upmarket restaurants with questionable TripAdvisor ratings.

As a budget-strapped (read: thrifty) traveller, I preferred to dine at the bustling local cơm tấm ngon establishments frequented by labourers, local families, and the odd backpacker. Cơm tấm – broken rice food – referred to rice grains that had been broken during the process of harvesting and cleaning. Being cheaper to buy, these grains were usually eaten by the Vietnamese working class.

Today, cơm tấm caters to all levels of society, from the tourists seeking sterile, air-conditioned environs to the locals who are happy to eat from open-air carts on the footpath. I usually chose the middle ground: modest “mom-and-pop” eating-houses that opened out onto the street. Noisy and smoke-stained, these small rooms are infused with cigarette smoke and fish sauce, furnished with dirty plastic tables, and scattered with chicken bones. Dishes piled high with various meats and vegetables would be on display near the door of the restaurant, sometimes covered, sometimes not.

The base of a cơm tấm meal is an enormous plate of white rice. This is topped with some form of barbecued meat – usually pork or chicken – and perhaps a fried egg and a green vegetable, perhaps bok choy or beans. There might also be a choice of oily sardines, or tofu stuffed with pork, or a kind of egg meatloaf made with ground pork, shrimp, carrots, glass noodles, and egg. And always, always, fish sauce.

Phở – said to be a fusion of French and Chinese cuisine – is a noodle soup made with meat broth and served in the same cheerful character. Pronounced fuh, chicken or beef phở is salty, steaming, and always presented alongside a garnish plate piled high with leafy herbs, which you add to your broth as you like. And try not to be shocked when ‘your’ plate of herbs is transferred to a customer the table over.

There is more to say about Dalat, and certainly more to say about Vietnam, but these pages are short. Another day, another story.

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